Game Rangers and Bush Guides
Some are called game-rangers and others are called bush-guides. Some of them wear short khaki-shorts and kudu-leather boots while others prefer long trousers, sleeveless bush-jackets and wide-brim hats. Most of them have at least one copper bangle around his or her wrist and all of them like using words like kleptoparasitsm, polyandry and termitarium in their everyday sentences to show off their weird repertoire of funny-sounding words. They are the backbone of the safari industry all over Africa and they all have one thing in common – they will all tell you that there is a massive difference between what people think they do and what they actually do. That guides work harder than most people – long days, dust, danger and difficult clients. True?
Over the last couple of years I have been able to also call myself “a safari guide.” You see, every now and then I also jump in a jeep and go guiding. And now, after an estimated 1200 hours of guiding (yes, I know it’s not a lot) I can report back that guiding is exactly how it looks – an adventure with only a hint of hard work.
Binoculars and Bird-book.
It was Wednesday the 15th of January and as my alarm went off at 5:00 I realized that this was the day that I was going to try and remember everything I do in order to put pen on paper and create a newsletter out of it. But already there is a problem: It’s drizzling outside.
The night before I had packed my coffee-box for the morning drive. Instant coffee, sugar, milk-powder, and tea. Metal mugs, teaspoons and flasks filled with boiling water. Now I gather all my safari-gear. Pocket knife and poncho, binoculars and bird-book, cell-phone and self-confidence. Off to the car-park behind the restaurant I go, dodging a hippo on my way. It’s barely light enough to make out the barmen Potiphar and Victor hurrying around serving breakfast. This morning Wildlife Camp guide, James Zulu, and I are taking out a group of 16 guests – always a bit trickier, as they always want to see the same things, but they cannot all fit onto one safari vehicle. Double check wheel-spanners and jacks and tow-ropes – it’s the green season and the roads are sticky with black cotton soil. Off we go… James calls: “Conrad, did you pack you muffins?” Oops…
Today’s guests are an interesting mix of been-there-done-that (in a good sense – they have been to 11 different National Parks all over Africa) Australians and four Scandinavian girls traveling together asking about the mambas. That is always a dead give-away that people are first-time safari-goers… when their first question is about the mambas.
It is now 6:00, the guests are on the Land Rovers and after a short briefing of what to expect and a couple of do’s and don’ts we are off – 4 hours of Africa awaits and we are ready. It has stopped drizzling but the ominous clouds are still all around.
Just outside camp we encounter a breeding herd of elephants. One cow shakes her head at us but I love elephants and there is so much to talk about while watching them. Here is a quick tip: If you plan on becoming a safari-guide, the first thing you must know is “how old is that baby elephant?” Two minutes later we find a tower of giraffe – another thing safari guides must know is their collective nouns. A quiver of cobras and a bask of crocodiles. These giraffe, I tell my photo-snapping guests, is one of the main reasons that South Luangwa National Park exists today – they are endemic to the Luangwa Valley and are called the Thornicroft’s Giraffe.
I saw it on Discovery Channel…
Soon we reach the gate, get signed in for the day, then cross the bridge over the Luanwga River into the park. Impala and puku come and go and the four young girls gasp at their first sighting of zebra. “How old is that baby zebra?” We see a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl sitting in a tamarind tree being mobbed by a paradise-flycatcher. “The flycather’s nest must by nearby” I tell my guests and as I say that we hear a Jacobin cuckoo calling. One random fact I know is that these cuckoos sometimes lie their eggs in flycatcher nests and we wonder whether the cuckoo will take advantage of the fly-catcher’s absence. “Do some cuckoos change the colour and shape and size of their eggs before lying them in other birds’ nests?” one guest asks. “I saw it on Discovery Channel.”
A little later we reach Wamilombe plain, the stronghold of Alice the leopard and her two fully grown cubs. Guests have already asked what our chances are of seeing spotted cats when it’s raining, so I go very slow making sure to take in each and every noise the bush makes. But today, there are no alarm-calls. A warthog snorts and runs off into the bush as we approach and that is about it. Two forks-in-the-road later we find some buffalo. I never look forward to forks in the road. I always imagine myself taking the left one then later finding out that if I had taken the right one I might have found mating lions, or hunting wilddog or even a pangolin. It has happened to me before. In any case, while watching three old buffalo bulls munching away it starts raining again.
I have to move off before getting out to retrieve ponchos for the guests. Driving onwards towards Lupunga-plain, the bush gets quiet. No animals in sight… Plenty of tracks and lots of magnificent trees but I cannot help but wonder whether I should have gone to the right?
When it stops raining we break for tea and coffee under and old baobab tree but soon the rain forces us back under the roof of the Land Rover. Another fork in the road and this time I turn right. And it works! We find wilddog pups bunched together under a bush hiding from the rain. Amazing. “How old are these puppies?”
By 10:35 we are back in camp and as James and I hang out ponchos to dry before tonight’s game-drive he tells me that they missed the wilddogs. In the office we do all the necessary post-safari paperwork and James goes for lunch while I wait for e-mails to come in. On my way back home I start chatting to a guest about the history of South Luangwa National Park and give him my explanation as to why the elephants here seem smaller than in other places. I tell him about my morning-sightings and he asks “Did you see any cats?”
Someone guaranteed them a leopard sighting!
It’s 15:00 and after an afternoon nap and a shower I am ready for the night drive. In the meantime I have organized my spotter, Andrew Tembo, for tonight and checked that my spotlights are in working condition. The cooler-boxes are prepared with drinks for sundowners and I am forced to pack half-damp ponchos. Fortunately the rain seems to be holding up for the moment. Just before 16:00 we head off again and I can hear my guests talking about night-drives being the perfect chance to see leopard…
James and I both go back to the spot where the dogs were in the morning, but they have gone. We watch baby impala for a while and also take some time to observe the vervet monkeys before they move up into the trees to spend the night. Seeing as monkeys have a set breeding period, it is quite easy to tell how old the babies are, but this time the Scandinavian girls don’t ask the question… They do however want to know if leopards ever catch monkeys. “Would a leopard catch this waterbuck” they later ask and as the sun sets I fear that some travel agent somewhere in a different hemisphere guaranteed them a leopard sighting!
Hyenas are also looking for leopards.
It’s a magnificent sunset! I love it when people appreciate sunsets – that, after all, is almost guaranteed!
As it gets dark we move off further into the National Park, my trusty old spotter swinging the light back-and-forth. We see a beautiful large-spotted-genet (“No, it’s not baby leopard”), a couple of scrub-hare (“yes, they are also referred to as leopard-cookies”) and a white-tailed mongoose (“no, I have never seen a leopard chase a mongoose”). A large hyena appears out of nowhere and we are lucky enough to follow her for a few minutes, carefully observing her every move – I know that, just like tourists and safari guides, hyenas are also looking for leopards at night.
Not to tick them off on their “animals-I’ve-seen-while-safari” lists, but to steal their food. But tonight this hyena leads us on a road to nowhere and with a quick glance at my watch I realize that it’s almost 20:00 – time to get out of the park. Time-management is one of the most important aspects of being a guide and 20 minutes later we arrived back in camp. We make sure nobody left anything behind in the Land Rover and then we say goodnight.
Irony has spots.
I park my Land Rover, put away the spotlights, unpack the coolerbox, hang my camera over my shoulder and walk home, again dodging a hippo!
It is now 21:00 and as I sit down for dinner I hear impalas alarm-calling outside my house. I get up, grab a torch and shine in the direction from where the impalas are calling. And, sure enough, there she is – that magnificent spotted cat that we’ve been looking for all day but could not find, just wandering by on her way to nowhere.